My goddaughter’s parents built a restaurant on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca. I say “built” rather than “opened” because they made the bricks themselves, dried them in the sun, and stacked them into a two-room cafe. The sightseeing boats come in several times a day from Copacabana, full of earnest backpackers eager to see the Island’s Aymara ruins. This is high season for tourists. It is also, in Bolivia, high season for politics.
Politics in Bolivia all too often involve dynamite (it’s a dollar a stick or so in the mining town of Potosi), tear gas, hunger strikes, marches, and riots. It gets worse every year; today, for the second time since I was there in 2001, the president has been forced to resign. Carlos Mesa, the mild-mannered historian who suddenly found himself president, submitted his resignation to the Congress late Monday.
It is far too easy for mobs to bring Bolivia to a screeching halt. Besides the cheap dynamite, geography works in their favor. La Paz, the capital, sits in a bowl on top of a mountain with one winding highway connecting it to the rest of the country. Block that highway between La Paz and the El Alto airport, and the city is cut off from the world. There are similar critical highways around the country that can isolate cities and shut down the country by blocking them with a few boulders or a few guards. In the latest siege of La Paz, the mobs cut off the water supply as well.
Of course, for my friends on the Island of the Sun, this is disaster. The tourists smell blood and revolution and will stay away. Those summer-vacation backpackers who usually take in Bolivia’s stunning beauty and ancient ruins will spend an extra week in Peru instead of boarding buses into Bolivia. An Israeli friend tells me his country’s embassy there has been urging their citizens to evacuate for a while now. For my goddaughter’s grandfather, himself a commercial fisherman in Lake Titicaca, there’s little use in going out to fish. Even if he could get his trout past the blockades to market, the foreigners will have vanished from the restaurants in La Paz.
The mobs are largely Indians with a great festering grudge against selling Bolivia’s natural gas reserves to anyone who could actually use it. They would rather leave the gas in the ground than have the money in their pockets, or see it spent on law enforcement, irrigation, or infrastructure. They are also pressing for more indigenous autonomy, despite (or perhaps because of) major concessions to that effect in the new Constitution.
LEADING THE MOBS IS a rubber-faced Marxist thug named Evo Morales, who got his start rabble-rousing among Bolivia’ coca-growers. Coca-growing is legal in one part of Bolivia; but Evo represented the Chapare, the part where it’s not. Since then he’s become a lightning rod for the politics of grievance; anyone with an anti-U.S., pro-(illegal)-coca, statist, socialist, anti-liberal, nationalist, isolationist, or racialist axe to grind joined Evo to swing it at the fragile roots of Bolivian democracy. The last time he brought down a president, 56 people died in the riots.
Evo is the new darling of the American left, however, since he’s an America-hating socialist who came to power without being elected. (Go on, click over to the Nation right now and I’ll bet you can find a glowing article explaining why Evo is “the new face of change in Latin America” or some such.) He’s almost like Che Guevara except slightly less violent and less attractive. It’s ironic, though, when you consider he has just led a putsch designed to (a): nationalize Bolivia’s considerable natural gas reserves, and (b): put himself in charge of the country. Here we have a losing politician deposing a democratic government and angling to usurp a nation’s petroleum reserves — but a genuine oil-for-blood coup is fine by the lefties if the instigator’s ideology checks out.
Behind Evo are more sinister forces. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is a big fan (Morales calls him a “personal friend”) and possibly a big donor. Morales has received an award (and possibly money) from Moammar Qaddafi in Libya, according to former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. (Morales’ carefully phrased non-denial denial is here.) And the violence of his followers has been accelerating: consider the tragic case of a miner who showed up at the Congress building in March 2004 wearing a dynamite-laden suicide vest, which showed a determination that rioting miners formerly eschewed in favor of the “light fuse and get away” school of political expression. The miner, protesting a cut in pension benefits, was tackled by the head of Bolivia’s congressional security and hit the detonator, killing them both and another policeman.
MY COMPADRES ARE THEMSELVES not exactly opposed to some of Evo’s ideas (we don’t talk politics, and in case things get ugly where they are I’ve avoided linking my name to theirs), but they understand that their fortunes and those of Bolivia’s tourism industry — one of a very few prospects for growth in a struggling economy — are doomed by political violence. Their plans and dreams — modest dreams though they are, of a tiny independent business literally built with their own hands — are as nothing against the tide of outrage that demands leveling and vengeance. This time, though, even the resignation of the President has not placated the revolutionaries and the riots continue.
Bolivia’s newspaper La Prensa calls the political sabotage of La Paz’s aqueduct an act of terrorism. And in the original sense of the word, as Edmund Burke applied it to the French Revolution, they are probably right. This is mob rule, fueled by resentment and ideology. This is anarchy.
Things were looking hopeful for Bolivia when I was there in 2001; the illegal coca crop was in remission, and economic liberalization and legal reforms were proceeding apace. Since then I have watched it spiral into misery. As with a friend suffering from an addiction, there is little we can do but pray and watch as the country makes a series of bad, self-destructive choices, helped by false friends along its path toward a miserable end.
Today I will join several of my fellow Californians in line at Western Union in a time-honored West Coast tradition: wiring money to Latin America. I can spare a little to make sure my goddaughter gets some school clothes and medical care, and maybe to help her parents through the hard times. But I’m afraid they’re all going to be hard times, for quite some time to come.